Omnivore's Dilemma by Michael PollanAfter seeing the book recommended by many a people, I decided to check out Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma. In the past couple years, I’ve read several titles on both food and food production (including Fast Food Nation, Diet For A New America, and others), but I’d heard from many people that although Pollan touched on a couple of the same sorts of themes, that his book was also very eye-opening in other areas as well.

As I mentioned in a previous post on this site, I have to say that I feel like I learned more from this book than I have in most books I’ve read in the past couple years. Obviously the historical books I’ve read have filled in my knowledge gaps significantly, but The Omnivore’s Dilemma is the sort of book that not only gives some great new information but shatters some of the things you might think you know about food production in the United States.

Obviously this sort of a book isn’t always an easy read, but unlike Fast Food Nation, which focuses in on food that most people already at least mostly know is bad for them, Pollan sets his sites on food that people like myself thought was being held to a higher standard.

I’m speaking of course, of organic food, and the problems with industrial food of this nature seem like they’d be pretty obvious, yet they were ones that I hadn’t thought of before. Despite USDA regulations (and perhaps because their regulations are so lax, and largely because they have to be), organic food is really not that much different than its non-organic counterparts at the store. Sure, they don’t use pesticides, but all large-scale organic operations still use the same types of labor practices, crop techniques, and of course consume the same (and sometimes more) amount of fuel in their production and transport.

An even more eye-opening section of the book focused in on organic milk, eggs, and chicken, and despite not having eaten meat (other than occasional fish) since 1998, this is the section that made me feel the most guilty. Like organic crops, there is actually very little difference in the actual production techniques of these items, with animal overcrowding and other similar problems haunting the production facilities.

The implied solution behind the book seems to be that when possible, buy local (and organic). Living in the midwest, it’s hard to do this due to long, hard winters that pretty much chop growing seasons in half of what they’d be in more moderate places, but his central idea also makes me appreciate our garden and the local farmer’s market that much more.

With melamine contamination and other food scares cropping up in the United States all the time, it sometimes seems like it’s not even worth the struggle to eat healthy, but this is the sort of book that gives you just a bit more knowledge to help keep up the good fight. Although the final section is a bit tangential, I can still say I recommend this book highly to anyone who’s interested where their food comes from and what it means for our environment.

The Ghost Map by Steven JohnsonI picked up The Ghost Map for TG as a gift awhile back and she had read it and highly enjoyed it. After finishing a book on World War II, I decided that I needed something a bit lighter, so of course I turned to a book about cholera epidemics in England in the nineteenth century.

Okay, so it’s not exactly light reading, but nothing like millions upon millions of bodies being ploughed asunder, so I decided to check it out.

I hadn’t read anything by Steven Johnson before, but after zooming through The Ghost Map, that will probably have to change. As mentioned above, the focal point of the book is about the cholera epidemics that ravaged England in the 1800’s, but it goes off in so many directions (in well-written ways) that it feels like a real smorgasboard of information. Johnson not only talks about the triumphs of science over superstition, but population density and city planning, information design, sociology, and just plain history of the actual events as well. He weaves all of these things together in logical, and even entertaining ways, introducing the “heroes” of the story and following the arcs of their discoveries like a thriller in some ways.

Like most great books that I’ve read, information comes at you in digestible amounts and about a variety of different angles. It was only the second book I finished this year, but got me excited about reading more again.

The Second World War by John KeeganAs I’ve mentioned many times before on this site, my knowledge of world history is seriously lacking and I’ve been trying to somewhat remedy that situation by reading different books to fill in the gaps that my education thusfar has left gaping open. I’d read The First World War by John Keegan later last year and thought it was a great condensed history, so I decided to follow it up with his book on World War II.

Just like his other book, this one was both fairly concise and at the same time absolutely packed to the seams with information. It literally covers all the facets of the war, including all the major and minor ground battles in Europe and Africa and all the naval battles in the Pacific and everywhere else. The politics leading into the war and during the war are covered as well, although obviously not as much as they would be in other books.

Reading through the book and refreshing my somewhat sketchy history on the subject, the thing that really stuck out to me were the technological advances made in such a short amount of time that would tip the balance in one direction and then back in another. In several cases the Germans hung on to battles beause of their superiority in terms of tanks, but once the American war machine was kicked into full gear, it was pretty much a matter of time before it ground down the enemy.

Of course, it goes without saying that the human loss was astounding. I think part of the reason that it took me so long to finish the book was that I was once again reminded in detail how many people died on all sides. In combination with my general pessimistic view of world events, I could only manage a certain amount of pages per day without feeling kicked in the stomach several times.

That said, reading the book also made me want to read more in-depth books on different facets of World War II, which I plan on doing at some point in the future.

And They All Sang by Studs Terkel When I heard that Studs Terkel had a new(er) book out that was comprised entirely of interviews with musicians, singers, and composers, I did my best to track it down right away and move it to the top of my must-read pile. If you’ve been looking at this site at all in the past year, you know that Terkel is one of my favorite compilers of the human condition with his writing. He consistently manages to conjure up some of the most meaningful statements I’ve ever read, and the words usually come from “ordinary” people.

And They All Sang differs from his other books in part because all the people he interviews within are rather well known (at least within their particular field). Even though I follow music in general rather closely, I have to admit ignorance in terms of many of the people in the book (mainly opera singers and conductors).

While the above fact didn’t keep me from enjoying the book, I feel like it did hold back what I got out of it. The first one-third to one-half of the book focuses in on these singers and their craft before moving on to different sections that focus on composers (including Leonard Bernstein and Aaron Copeland) that I really enjoyed a lot. From there, he’s onto jazz (including Louis Armstrong, Dizzy Gillespie, and Keith Jarrett), blues/folk/rock (including Bob Dylan, Pete Seeger, Janis Joplin), and even includes an interview with Alan Lomax.

Out of all the interviews, the ones with Seeger and Lomax were by far my favorite. The Dylan interview was interesting, but like many done at the peak of his early mysterious phase, it seems much more leading and even slightly more fawning than Terkel usually gets. Seeger flat out had an interesting life and is an amazing storyteller, while as expected Lomax has some great tales to tell as well. His recollections of carrying around the amazingly heavy early “portable” recording equipment are practically worth the price of the book alone.

As a whole, And They All Sang had some great moments, but didn’t engage me quite as much as the usual work from Terkel. If I had a larger appreciation for opera, I probably would have enjoyed the book all the way through, and while there were definitely still interesting things to glean from their interviews, I wished I could relate more.

Under The Black Flag by David Cordingly I’m not a huge fan of “talk like a pirate day,” nor have I seen either of the Pirates of the Carribean movies, but I have to admit at least a partial fascination with pirates. I mean, who doesn’t have one? I suppose it goes back to my days of youth (where forest forts became a perfect place for swashbuckling daydreams) a little more than recent times, but continuing my non-fiction kick for the year, I decided to tackle Under The Black Flag by David Cordingly.

The book was recommended quite some time back by friend and former band-mate Tom (hi, Tom!), and TG bought the book and sped through about 75 pages only to deposit it on the lower level of our nightstand and leave it for dead. Not quite ready to tackle a book on World War II right on the heels of one on World War I, I thought some lighter fare on pirates might be good.

As it turns out, Cordingly’s book is very well researched and is an interesting look at both the facts and fictions behind how pirates have been portrayed over the ages. It was interesting to see a lot of the romantic misconceptions get blown out of the water (pun sort of intended), as well as some of the more brutal elements brought into focus. Yes, there was a lot of drinking and galavanting on the high seas, but in most cases this sort of a lifestyle meant for a very short lifespan and if death didn’t come by disease or battle wounds, it came by hanging (after which the corpse was usually coated in tar and placed in a large metal cage at port entries as a warning to others) after pirate activity was cracked down more severly by the British government.

At roughly 250 pages, the book was also a speedy read, with some interesting drawings, maps, and illustrations to boot. If you think that the pirates life was all Errol Flynn style swashbuckling and loveable rogues like a drunken Johnny Depp, this might be a good book to check out.

History of World War I by John Keegan A couple months back, I asked for recommendations (at an online forum I frequent) on good, somewhat entry level books about the history of World War I and World War II. Several people responded back that historian John Keegan was about the best route you could take in this area, so I hunted down his books on both of the aforementioned wars.

My main reason for reading the books is that I feel flat-out stupid about world history often. I went through high school and got A’s in all my classes, but at that time I was doing just enough to get those good grades (which really wasn’t that much) and nothing much sunk in. Then, in college, I took hardly any world history classes at all en route to an art major and writing minor. I know a shedload about art history, but in terms of world history I’m pretty much an idiot.

At any rate, The History of World War I was just what I was looking for. Keegan runs through just about everything he can in a tight 400 pages, opening with the political conflicts that flared up at the beginning, the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand, and finally the standdown and miscommunications that finally led to the war.

The most interesting (and utterly depressing) thing (to me anyway) about the war was the fighting itself. Living in the current age, it’s hard to imagine trench warfare and the absolutely gut-churning battles that went on (especially Ypres) back and forth for years and years, eventually leading to the deaths of millions and millions of troops on both sides.

I’m taking a break before reading the second book from Keegan, because while the first one wasn’t a difficult read, it was obviously heavy subject matter and I couldn’t bring myself to tackle World War II directly following it. If you’re looking to brush up on your own history reading and want a solid, but not overwhelming place to start, this is as probably good as any.

Race by Studs TerkelBack when I was in college, I worked for a writing center on campus. One of the rooms that we used for conferences had an entire wall that was covered by a bookshelf with titles on it that I never pulled out to read. I did scan over the titles, though, and the book Race stuck out at me simply because the authors name was Studs Terkel and in the mind of an 18 year old, that seemed kinda funny to me.

As you can probably tell if you’ve looked at this site any in the past two years, I have obviously become a huge fan of Mr. Terkel. To date, I’ve read five of his books and plan on reading everything he’s compiled at some point in the future. As I’ve mentioned in the past, he’s one of the best distillers of perceptions and language that I’ve ever read. His books have numerous, numerous instances of “normal” everyday people who say some of the most profound, beautiful, and meaningful things that I’ve read in the past five years.

I’m a person who likes good documentary films, and that’s usually because of the people and the personalities portrayed. One of the best things I can say about the books (especially Race) of Terkel is that when you’re reading them, you feel like you’re sitting in the middle of an outstanding documentary film. He guides you through different passages with skill and ease, and even in short interviews of a couple pages, he manages to paint vivid pictures of the lives and people he’s interviewing.

If it seems like I’m gushing, I am. As far as I’m concerned, Studs Terkel is a bit of a national treasure at this point. If you haven’t read any of his books, pick one up and get lost in it. If you’ve read his work and you know of other authors or collections of oral history style writings that you think I might enjoy, let me know.

Audio Culture by Christopher Cox and Daniel WarnerWhen I started out the “year of non-fiction” (as I’ve been calling it), one of my sub-goals was to also read a wide variety of material as well. Because I also write music reviews in my spare time, I figured that one area I would try to fill in some knowledge gaps was in the realm of music. Earlier this year, I’d read a book on the history of hip hop, and I thought it would also be nice to read a little bit more about the pioneers of electronic music.

Audio Culture: Readings In Modern Music came recommended to me by several sources, and although I enjoyed it, it ultimately felt like a big grab bag of sorts. The major problem with the book is simply that it’s a collection of lots of different essays by a huge number of different authors. The writing styles are varied, and although the book is loosely structured into different themese, ultimately the voices of the authors themselves shine through and make for a sometimes difficult read. For instance, the tone of the articles ranges from hardcore music theory to pseudo-intellectual (and using LOTS OF CAPITAL LETTERS to make a point) to downright jokey and playful at times.

The parts of the book that I enjoyed most were the essays written by the musicians that I follow closest, even though they were also some of the ones that I learned the least from. In the end, I came to realize that although music theory and breaking everything down is fun to talk about sometimes, I’m really just one of those people who wants to sit down and do it instead of trying to place everything on a grid.

What it boils down to is that I’m kind of an idiot when it comes to creating music. I’ve never learned to play an instrument, and when I make music it’s entirely by ear with lots and lots of trial and error. When people start talking about theory, I tend to want to run away and just smack my keyboard around for awhile and hope that something nice-sounding comes out. Hunting and pecking indeed.

How Would A Patriot Act by Glenn GreenwaldIn the midst of getting all bent out of shape about my laptop taking far too long to be repaired (no, I still don’t have it back almost 3 weeks later), I forgot to mention that I’d finished another book. Because it had been awhile since I’d read something political, I decided to dive into the short, but very excellent How Would A Patriot Act? by Glenn Greenwald. I’d first heard of Greenwald when I started reading his great blog Unclaimed Territory last year. In a short period of time, his site had become a daily must-read for me. His language is straightforward and to-the-point, and his ideas are clearly formed and have a lot of research behind them.

His first book (which is a very brisk 140 pages) is basically a fleshing-out of different posts that he’s made on his site in the past, but it’s a great way to fill in the specific gaps in terms of the different ways that the current administration has been picking away at the Constitution and using the global war on terror as an excuse.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard people use the phrase (or something like it), “Your civil liberties don’t mean a whole lot if you’re dead.” Greenwald puts that whole argument to bed pretty quickly in his book, defining the different (and rather underhanded and sly, as most people don’t seem to really even know the full level of it) circumventions and flat-out ignoring of laws that have gone on in the past five (and even longer) years.

Read this book and weap, or at least wonder when the next big tea party is going to happen.

The Good War by Studs TerkelAlthough I went through my history classes in high school and managed to get A’s, I somehow either didn’t retain or simply didn’t learn about a lot of events in world history that I should have. World War II was only one of these events, and I thought that the best place for me to dive into things would be with a familiar writer that I enjoyed. The Good War is now the fourth book by Studs Terkel that I’ve read in the past year, and I honestly have no reason to want to stop. His interviews almost perfectly capture the wide range of the human condition, and his assembly and structuring makes for good reading.

While I wasn’t a complete idiot about WWII when I started the book, there were many things that I learned within that I decided I wanted to know more about in depth. Even though the big isn’t one of detailed statistics and figures, the sheer numbers and size of the war in just about every degree boggled my mind at points. Terkel talks to not only people from the United States, but people from both Allied and other positions in Europe. He speaks to those who were on the European stage, the Pacific stage, and even those on the homefront.

As always, the insight of the “common” person within his books seems to at times be some of the most profound reading that I’ve read. Words flow like poetry at times and the book spans the wide range of emotions from blind patriotism to enveloping sadness at events that have taken place. As with other Terkel books I’ve read, I would highly recommend this to anyone. In fact, it’s probably the best Terkel book that I’ve read thusfar.

On a related note, I now plan to read more about World War II. I posed the question of what might be the best semi-concise historical non-fiction tome on WWII to another forum, and I was recommended both The Second World War by John Keegan and A World at Arms: A Global History of World War II by Gerhard Weinberg. Both are supposed to be quite good at laying out the timelines and history of the war, with the latter being especially in-depth (which isn’t surprising given the almost 1,200 page length). Anyone else have any great WWII non-fiction titles they’d recommend?

« Previous PageNext Page »